Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

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The Reading Wars: A Continued Contest

With the progressive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s came a progressive reading movement, whole language.  This new, constructivist theory of reading acquisition resonated loudly with teachers who felt they were constrained by teaching phonics (the teaching of symbol-sound correspondences and the rules and generalizations of the English Language).  Whole language advocates believe that learning to read and spell parallels how we learn oral language–through mere exposure.  Whole language theory holds that if children are read to enough, they will learn to generalize the relationship between letters and sounds.  They magically will learn to break the code.   In this approach to learning to read, students learn words like the Chinese learn ideograms, as an entire unit, not as individual sounds that are blended to create a word.

Unfortunately for whole language advocates, the science behind learning to read does not reflect how students actually learn to read.  As Stanislas Dehaene, one of the most highly regarded reading researchers in the world, states, good readers look at every letter of a word and sound out words.  What differs between a struggling or emerging reader and a proficient reader is the speed at which they read.  Proficient readers associate symbols and sounds almost instantaneously.  For struggling and emerging readers, pulling the print off the page is a laborious, tiring process.

If you are interested in how people learn to read, you might be interested in professor Dehaene’s Ted Talk.

Dehaene’s work,along with that of many other reading researchers, underscores the importance of teaching reading in a very systematic and explicit way.  While it is important to expose students to good literature, students have to have the ability to translate the code to words they speak.  If they can’t do this, they will never appreciate curling up in bed with a good book to open new worlds.

John Alexander, Head of School